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No matter what, Falcons’ 2021 first-round selection will be a gamble

It just depends what the Falcons want to bet on.

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

So, who exactly are the Atlanta Falcons going to pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

The closer we get, the less helpful Johnny P. Rumor and Denny Mock Draft will be at trying to help us connect the dots and pre-order whatever new jersey may come our way.

Will it be Florida tight end Kyle Pitts? Could the team be ready for a quarterback change with Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance? Could the team pop down the draft board a bit and get an extra couple of picks for the future?

Your guess is as good as mine. Nobody really knows, no matter what Pitts says on television or what an NFL insider tells you. After watching the Falcons take A.J. Terrell last year, and Chris Lindstrom the year before, and Calvin Ridley the year before that, it’s that all of this talk is likely empty calories. Sometimes, it just helps to wait for the main course before you rate the restaurant, so to speak.

The fandom is bitterly divided right now as to what is best for the future of the team. It’s a lofty debate to have: do you invest in Matt Ryan and get him a potentially generational pass-catcher in Pitts, do you go ahead and stash a potentially elite quarterback in Lance or Fields (or, gag me with a spoon, Mac Jones), or do you field the best offer you can find and concrete the foundation of this roster with new vision?

The best answer lies in accepting that, no matter what, this new regime is going to have to make a bet when they turn the card in Thursday. No matter what this team does, there’s a ship that sails in another direction. Unlike years in the past, the Falcons really are going to make a potentially franchise-changing decision this week, and there is a full certainty that we’re going to have to not only feel the ramifications of the move they make, but feel it of the ones they don’t. They’re going to feel it for a very long time.

Let’s take the Pitts route. He’s been commonly linked to this team for a long time, and for good reason. If you draft him, you give this offense a renewed sense of vigor. I think there is a sizeable boost to what new coach Arthur Smith and his playcalling will do to awaken the talent on this side of the ball — particularly on the offensive line — and the former tight end coach adding who perhaps could be the best at the position to ever play the game in a generation is mightily enticing. You add him, you’re investing in Ryan and giving him his best chance to get this team to a Super Bowl, if such a possibility even exists right now.

Consider what you lose, though. The Falcons may never be in this position again while Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot are with the team, and this class has a rare billing of quarterback talent. Ryan isn’t young anymore. But, more scarily, what happens if the Carolina Panthers decide to draft one of these sliding QBs?

To me, that’s the danger. It’s not so much that not picking Fields or Lance will hurt you for a long time as much as it is letting one of those guys slip to a division rival. If Fields really is this year’s misevaluated quarterback steal, do you really want him going to Carolina? You’re going to need a quarterback in the next few years anyway, and if you can keep someone like that from going to a division foe, why not?

Well, there’s the other risk. The path for a rookie quarterback in Atlanta will not be as easy as we would all want it to be. It will put immediate pressure on Ryan to perform now, but it will also cause the team to enter a forced timeline of moving his contract before 2022. Make no mistake: it’d not be ideal to draft a quarterback and sit him for two years. It’s only happened once post-2000 that a quarterback has gone in the top-5 picks and not started within his first two seasons: Philip Rivers and the Chargers, and that was with a young Drew Brees in town. It’s not that it’s the worst thing you could do, but it’s just so uncommon that high in the draft to stash a prospect like that. Sitting for a year is one thing. Two is just not proper with that high of a draft pick, and not at all common.

There’s also the risk that Ryan plays well and puts you in the awkward spot of trading a good player for a guy you fully aren’t sure about. It’s not to say these quarterbacks won’t be great, and a lot of smart people think they will be. But this is the NFL: hot prospects disappoint all the time. Pitts is considered one of the safest prospects of the modern era; do you really pass on someone like that for a guy who has less certainty for their careers?

If you feel a little nervous after reading this, think about how the front office feels. Right off the bat, they’re going to make a draft pick that sends shockwaves through the future of this team. The Falcons have just as much risk involved with not drafting a quarterback this year as they do letting a potentially elite player like Pitts fall through their pick. It’ll all center on how confident they are in their vision in the future of this team, and if they think Ryan is the guy who can get the job done.

Be excited — tremendously excited — about the future in Falcons football. Trying to focus too much on the holes on the roster or the cap space ignore the potential for these offseason moves to really get this franchise going again. It might take some time, and we shouldn’t be expecting a Super Bowl right away. The coaching staff looks formidable, and Fontenot’s track record is very heartening. The potential of taking a new quarterback alone could really set this team up for a hell of a future, as could taking a generational player like Pitts and pairing him with a veteran quarterback for a few years.

The gamble is nearly here, and the Falcons are either going to bet on the immediate turnaround of this team or in the ultimate one in the future. It’s thrilling and scary, as it should be. There’s just not much else to do now but wait and see what cards were dealt.